Some 20 million students are expected to be enrolled in American colleges and universities this fall. That means almost 20 million in tuition bills. Whenever students and college are mentioned together, you can bet rising college costs and student loans are topics that will follow.
Reducing college costs is a major focus for many students and their parents. Students are attending community college, working during college, living at home and applying for scholarships, and parents are investing in 529 savings plans to reduce the need for big student loans.
Another way to reduce costs is to finish a degree program early. That’s what we’ve done in our family. I earned my bachelor’s degree in 1988, my daughter finished in 2014 and my son is slated to complete his undergraduate degree in 2020.
Three family members, three degrees, each in three years. We are all good students but not academic all-stars. We did it without a lot of stress or overloading courses — and you or your child can too.
How We Did It
In all three of our cases, we earned college credits in high school and took a few community college classes in the summer. We also took charge of our own course planning and let college admissions counselors know graduating in three years was our plan before we registered for our first class.
Advanced placement (AP) courses and College-Level Examination Program (CLEP) tests have been offered by the College Board for decades. Local colleges and universities also partner with school districts to offer college courses in conjunction with high schools.
It’s important to check with colleges you are interested in to see if they will accept the credits though. Colleges often limit which courses they will give credit for and determine a satisfactory score.
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Recognizing that students were making choices to go this shorter route on their own, some American colleges and universities now offer 3-year degree programs as well. This isn’t unheard of since universities in Europe and some Canadian colleges already have standard three-year undergraduate programs.
Pros and Cons of Graduating Early
You might think that saving tens of thousands of dollars only has upsides, but there are some things to consider, too.
Besides saving a year of college costs, a student who changes majors or adds an additional major or minor might still be able to graduate in less than the five or six years that it takes most students.
Further, students who graduate early can start graduate programs sooner and enter the workforce earlier to begin earning money.
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Planning early graduation can negatively impact some high school students. Trying to cram in too many advanced courses can result in poor grades and stress. Depending on the college, some courses might not be accepted for credit either.
Students also end up enrolled in sophomore-level college courses when they head off to campus, which may be very challenging as they adjust to college life. If they have scholarships, their grade point average may suffer, and that could affect their scholarship status, too.
Students could also miss out on internships, study abroad programs, extra-curricular activities, sports and leadership roles when they leave campus a year early.
Can It Be Done If You’re Already in College?
It might be hard to finish in three years if you are enrolled and didn’t go to college with any “banked” credits from high school. You can always try to take on extra courses or do summer classes in addition to your normal course load. That said, remember that you will have to pay for any extra courses you take, and this might negate some of the savings. Also, if it stresses you out and affects your grades, it might not be worth it.
Finishing our undergraduate degrees in three years worked out well for our family. It saved us money, gave us options in case we changed our majors and allowed us to chart our own course a year sooner. It’s not the answer for everyone but it’s definitely something to consider.
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